It's probably a mixed blessing that regional theater audiences have never been too preoccupied with plush, upholstered seats or five-figure set and costume budgets. Some of our most promising independent companies would likely have winked out of existence years ago if that were the case.
But those who go to theaters tend to be a pretty hardy lot. I've watched them sit out a summer thunderstorm without budging at a Paperhand Puppet Intervention show, bundle up for a late-fall Lab production at the Forest Theatre, trudge the fields of an Orange County farm on a cold spring night in search of Chekhov at the behest of a company then called Shakespeare & Originals, and swelter through punishing conditions in the basement of UNC's Graham Memorial Building, Cary's Bond Park and Manbites Dog Theater in Durham.
We've demonstrated we'll endure all that and more—if, that is, the work on stage is worth it. If the acting, direction and the script convinces us.
This week, at Raleigh Little Theatre, it does. At Find the Light, it doesn't.
Two productions, on two clumsy sets: Take it from me, neitherThe Trip to Bountiful at Raleigh Little Theatre nor Find the Light's production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are going to garner any superlatives for scenic design when we consider the region's best work this coming December.
After shoving the bedroom up against the living room of Ludie Watts' Houston apartment, RLT designer Rick Young separates the two with a less-than-elegant rectangular strip of gray electrical conduit that runs across the floor at center stage. Later on, a criminally minimal set change doesn't hint at the degree to which the old home place at the end of the play's titled journey has deteriorated. Clearly, we're in the presence of set design on the cheap.
Playwright Horton Foote's evocative script documents an old woman's desperate attempts to reclaim her own past. Carrie is the matriarch of a family desperately seeking prosperity after her son, Ludie, came back from the war—and their farm bottomed out in his absence. Not relocated so much as uprooted from her coastal home, she's now under virtual guard by her snarky, vain daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae, in a small Houston apartment. While Jessie Mae dreams of movie magazine diversions and Ludie dreams of a better life, Carrie desires one thing only—escape.
Under Haskell Fitz-Simons' direction, Ann Lincoln first seems a bit too animated as the beleagured mother, but believably settles into the character by the second act. Brent Wilson's first non-singing role at RLT is a refreshment—a portrait of a haggard man, near wits' end as he tries to deal with wife, mother and money. Martie Todd Sirois doesn't venture all that far from stereotype as the peevish wife, but Jessica Heironimus provides notable support as a stranger who befriends Carrie once her trip begins. Todd Culpepper amuses as Roy, a sourpuss bus station attendant, while Jake Ferrell lends gravity to the Sheriff.
Similar economics plague the efforts of director and designer Gennaro D'Onofrio at Find the Light. There's almost a complete disconnect between D'Onofrio's sumptuous and erudite program notes describing Big Daddy's mansion and the chaos we see crammed into a corner of his company's new storefront theater in downtown Durham.
This haphazard collection of well-worn furniture—some of it apparently turned on its side—in clashing styles and colors suggests a low-grade garage sale before it ever begins to resemble the upstairs bedroom of a rich man's Southern plantation house. The "couch" that fading athlete Brick is said to have slept on while avoiding his wife, Maggie, is an ad hoc arrangement of painted plywood and cushions, clearly far too small to accommodate the actor who plays him.
Then there are the witless representations of cats that litter the place—no matter how garish or out of sync. Fang-bearing cats, crudely carved on wooden strips that seem to have been glued to the two front bedposts. A tin wall sconce with a cat-head at the top on the balcony. A mismatched leopard skin print slung over an aging orange and wood upholstered rocker. Most inexplicably: a cheap ceramic cat—with a nose ring?—sits so precariously at attention atop a pedestal just to the left of the bed that the actors moved gingerly whenever they went near it. So much for subtlety, or function.
Onstage, a group of actors early in development struggle with Williams' blockbuster. It's not the first time we've seen these troubles from Find the Light. When I caught its first regional performance over a year ago, I concluded at the time that the work didn't meet our minimum criteria for review—that no good would be served by holding a cast of beginners to critical standards they clearly weren't prepared to meet.
We're now a good distance from that first encounter. Since then, D'Onofrio's company has acquired a downtown Durham storefront. Unfortunately, we have yet to see them demonstrate the standards of competence regularly seen in this region's independent theaters. Wooden, rudimentary and internally contradictory acting sums the technique currently on view from this school at this point. Our recommendation: Avoid it.